SAN DIEGO — Ryuji Imada, a runner-up at Torrey Pines two years ago, has a much better opportunity this time. He won’t be starting the final round 12 shots behind, or trying to catch up to Tiger Woods.
Imada avoided the trouble that caught up with so many other contenders Saturday, making only one bogey and escaping with several key pars for a 2-under 70 that gave him a two-shot lead over Ben Crane and Michael Sim in the Farmers Insurance Open.
Imada essentially won the B-Flight two years ago when he closed with a 67 to finish eight shots behind Woods. No matter the score or who’s in the field, he obviously has figured out something about the tough South Course at Torrey Pines.
He was at 13-under 203 and will be in the final group with Crane, who had a 69, and Sim, the 25-year-old Australian playing Torrey Pines for the first time since he was a teenager at the Junior World Championship in 2002.
“The score looks pretty solid, but it was a struggle out there,” Imada said.
He made a nifty up-and-down from short of the 15th green for one par, saved another par from left of the 16th green, and finished the day with a 35-foot birdie putt that gave him a slightly bigger cushion than he expected.
For so many others, birdies were offset by adventures.
Phil Mickelson lost a ball in a eucalyptus tree and took double bogey, then rallied for a 70 and was four shots behind. U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover made double bogey on one of the easiest par 4s, then followed with four birdies for a 68, leaving him three shots behind going into Sunday.
D.A. Points, who shared the lead with Imada after two rounds, kept pace until he chipped over the 14th green and into the hazard, scrambling for a double bogey. He had a 74, although he was still in the mix.
Ten players were separated by four shots going into the final round, which isn’t much on a course that hosted the U.S. Open in 2008.
“You cannot predict what’s going to happen in this game, especially on this course,” Crane said.
Mickelson would not have predicted seeing a ball get stuck in a tree — two days in a row. On Friday, it happened in his group to Ryan Palmer. This time, it was Lefty who stared up into the eucalyptus tree, even sending a young fan up the tree to help.
“My short game kept me in it,” Mickelson said. “I didn’t hit the ball the way I’ve been hitting it coming in. I don’t feel like it’s far off. But at least I’m in a position now where a good round tomorrow can get it done.”
Mickelson and so many others were in range.
Brandt Snedeker, who played in the final group at Torrey Pines in 2007, birdied the last hole for a 68 and was in the group at 207 along with Mickelson, K.J. Choi (69), highly regarded rookie Rickie Fowler (70), Matt Every (72) and Points.
Ernie Els had a 69 to lead the group at 8-under 208 that also featured Robert Allenby, who has two victories and a runner-up finish in his last three tournaments.
“You can’t really fake it around here,” Els said.
That much was clear on a sun-filled day along the Pacific bluffs. Points was one shot out of the lead and in front of the 14th green trying it pitch to a back pin. It came out a little strong, tumbled down the hill and into a hazard.
Even more adventurous was Mickelson.
He drove left over the cliff on the fourth hole and down the hill in the plants, just above Black’s Beach. Mickelson found his ball, managed to get it back onto the golf course and then thrilled his large crowd with a par.
He wasn’t as fortunate with his next mistake.
Mickelson hit another tee shot to the left on the par-4 seventh, and the fans could hear it clatter into a eucalyptus tree. They just couldn’t hear it land. By the time Mickelson arrived at the base of a tree, rules official Steve Rintoul already had his binoculars out. He had spotted one ball lodged in the branches, but couldn’t identify it as a Callaway with Mickelson’s markings.
One man offered to climb into the tree. Mickelson, not as spry at age 39, gave his full blessing. The man climbed 10 feet into the tree and shook with all his might as the crowd cheered him on. The ball never came down, but it moved enough for Mickelson to realize it wasn’t his. He headed back to the tee and hit another drive behind the trees, and did well to escape with double bogey.
By the end of the day, he still had a chance.